Google values: the hornet’s nest gets kicked

In what could be a landmark challenge to employment practice former Google employee James Damore has launched a class action lawsuit accusing the search giant of discrimination against conservatives. (See here for the news story.)

Just to be clear, Damore’s views about the (non) capabilities of female engineers are idiotic, and you might say it was no more than reasonable that a hi-tech business should not want idiots on its payroll.

But at the heart of Damore’s case is a serious question: when do an employee’s political views or personal values become part of the company’s business?

There’s no doubt that by publishing his views (though in his own name) Damore caused some embarrassment to Google. But is that a sackable offence? In the US where there are fewer employee protections it might prove so, and the lawsuit will test the question.

But the lawsuit goes beyond the issue of wrongful dismissal, alleging discrimination (without much sense of irony). And that’s a much harder question.

Alignment? Really?

It’s become a cliché of management practice that a business should seek “alignment” with its stated values, both from its suppliers and employees. Behind this notion is the inadequate assumption that values drive behaviour, when in reality the only concern of a business can be the actual behaviour of its employees. In this sense then Damore’s lawsuit skewers the cant at the heart of the brand cliché, or more specifically the unreflective correlation of values and behaviour.

Because so much of this way of thinking is taken for granted Damore’s manager clearly felt he was on firm ground when he defined the line Damore had crossed.

“There are certain ‘alternative views, including different political views’ which I do not want people to feel safe to share here … You can believe that women or minorities are unqualified all you like … but if you say it out loud, then you deserve what’s coming to you.”

But it’s not that simple. Damore’s views might be objectionable, or idiotic, and might well upset or irritate some of his colleagues. But Google must show that any provoked irritation had a quantifiable effect on Damore’s ability to do his job effectively (or perhaps on the ability of those around him to do their jobs effectively). It might well be that it did, given the team dynamics in his office, but that’s not yet been demonstrated, and since this class action case is really about establishing precedent we need to be very careful indeed: could an employee in a privatised UK utility be sacked for supporting Labour and its renationalisation agenda? What do companies really have in mind when they speak of “alignment”?

Not least we’re seeing the chasm between the generally-stated clichés of corporate values and the real values of the management. Perhaps the blandness of these clichés becomes understandable because in their blandness they seek to avoid anything other than the broadly acceptable (though that gives them marginal utility in relation to behaviour). But the Google case highlights the problems when employees come up against the real values of their management, which they don’t happen to share.

Values and behaviour

In this light it’s apparent that the demand for an alignment of values skirts a hornet’s nest of serious issues for employment practice. In the real world (as opposed to the unexamined assumptions/fantasies of management theory) an employer should not be making demands about values at all, but at best can only afford to define desired behaviours.

The Google case turns on the widespread corporate “value” of diversity/inclusivity. I imagine Google will vigorously defend its right to have this value shape its recruitment policies (though in a further twist the company is currently the subject of scrutiny for differential pay to men and women), and I doubt a court would want to stop it doing so.

But the question is whether Damore’s views obstructed the company’s ability to pursue that policy. If he was an HR manager there would clearly be a problem, but he was a software engineer, who presumably spent most of his working day in front of a screen with his head full of code.

There’s a lot at stake. If Damore’s class action is successful it could drastically limit the power of businesses to pursue affirmative action, at a time when, to the liberal-minded, that action is very much needed (the class suit seems to be arguing that conservatives are routinely discriminated against in recruitment policies). But if it fails it could mean that employers have carte blanche to act against employees for their political views, even if these views have no discernible impact on their work performance. It might be that there is no possible good outcome to this action, and that should worry us all.

Papering over the cracks

Even without the legal implications the case underlines the conceptual and practical quagmire that businesses walk into when they start demanding an alignment of corporate and personal values. The common language of brand communication deliberately, carelessly blurs the distinction between the corporate and the personal, and the net result is to reinforce employee alienation from the business, which is crazy because it’s the opposite of what’s intended.

If nothing else I hope Damore’s case will force companies to think harder about what they’re saying when they speak of alignment. Perhaps optimistically it will force them to focus on real behaviour, on where different behaviours matter and how you can most effectively change them, rather than pursuing a box ticking approach to the management of corporate culture, which is the root of this over-casual use of the language of values: in our apparently fractured and divided societies, we can’t afford to paper over the cracks with platitudes plucked from a superficial marketing mindset.

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